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The Urgency of Aruza: Stop the Invasion of Wounaan Lands

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

In a stunning and abrupt reversal, Panama’s National Land Administration Authority (ANATI) has annulled the community of Aruza’s 2012 petition for collective land rights. This decision effectively hands over control of almost 8,000 hectares of traditional Wounaan lands to 72 settler-colonists, cattle ranchers, and loggers. What we are witnessing is the displacement of Indigenous families from their territory. Make no mistake, the people of Aruza are in urgent need of a solution.

Native Future stands with the Wounaan National Congress, the Foundation for the Development of the Wounaan People (FUNDEPW), and all Wounaan communities in Panama who are fighting for their right to live in peace on their historic land. We need you to join us in support of Indigenous rights and the protection of Panama’s most pristine rainforest ecosystems.

Your contribution will help restore Aruza to the Wounaan who have been taking care of it for generations.

Aruza is a territory of approximately 30 square miles of mostly mature tropical forest. It borders the Darien National Park, which is also a Biosphere Reserve. The 400+ Wounaan who call Aruza home have been living on that land sustainably for generations, and in doing so, protecting one of the most biologically diverse regions in the Americas. ANATI’s decision is not only a blow to Aruza; if the decision is not reversed, it threatens the future of Indigenous communities around Panama who are trying to collectively title their land.

Aruza’s application had been slowly proceeding through the collective-titling process since 2012. Years after the public was notified of their intent to title their territory, their application was challenged by a group of loggers and ranchers on a procedural issue and ANATI decided in their favor. (You can read more about the case here.) While the government has justified this land grab as a procedural error, Wounaan authorities have documents proving the process was in fact carried out.

Thankfully, Native Future was able to provide emergency funding to the Wounaan National Congress so that they could protest ANATI’s decision and initiate counter legal action. However, Wounaan must continue to act to prevent the loss of Aruza’s land and to safeguard the future of all Wounaan communities.

The Wounaan National Congress will take this case to Panama’s Supreme Court and seek a reversal of ANATI’s decision to violate Indigenous land rights. A team of Indigenous lawyers and community leaders will continue to take legal action to stop the occupation and logging of Aruza’s territory by colonists, loggers, and cattle ranchers.

Wounaan community monitors will continue to proactively monitor forest cover change throughout their territories with the assistance of the territorial monitoring program. By remaining vigilant, they will be prepared to document and communicate any further degradation of their lands to the Panamanian government.

Additionally, Native Future aims to mobilize an international team of environmental experts and Indigenous rights advocates dedicated to advancing the collective titling of the remaining untitled Wounaan communities, such as Majé, Rio Hondo, and Platanares. The titling of collective land is a critical step in the process of formalizing the right of Indigenous people to live unperturbed on their own land.

The images above show the encroaching deforestation in Aruza from 2019 to 2022.

The role of the Indigenous population of Panama in safeguarding the country’s rainforests has been emphasized by the Panamanian government itself. The Ministry of Government, in their 2018 “Plan for the Integrated Development of Indigenous Communities in Panama,” stated that traditional Indigenous practices with respect to the use of natural resources have “guaranteed their conservation and renewal.” In his speech at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), President Nito Cortizo credited Indigenous communities for their role in the preservation of Panama’s rainforests, which cover 33% of the country’s land area. He emphasized that the conservation of these ecosystems is the reason that Panama was one of only three countries present who could claim that they are “carbon negative.”

However, the Panamanian government’s rhetoric does not match its actions. It took over two decades of legal attempts for Panama to finally pass a collective land titling law in 2008, and an additional two years to regulate it. Emberá and Wounaan communities were eager to file all of the necessary documentation; however, it wasn't until the Panamanian government was taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights twice in 2012 and 2014 that any Indigenous land was collectively titled at all.

The community of Aruza has been struggling to prevent loggers from exploiting the land's natural resources since at least 1987, when the government granted logging concessions on their territory. Incursions and illegal logging continued into the 21st century, with specific cases in 2003, 2018, and 2021. And now we are seeing an all-out assault on the rights of Wounaan people to live on their lands. The latest developments in Aruza highlight the need for urgent action to stop the invasion of Indigenous lands in Panama. By executing this legal strategy now we can protect Indigenous lands not only in Aruza, but also in other Wounaan lands that are still awaiting collective titling of lands.

(For a more in-depth look at the situation in Aruza, check out our StoryMap.)

(Source: La Prensa, 2018)

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